iMac Buyer's Guide: Is the 5K iMac Right For You?

The new Retina iMac, also known as the iMac with 5K Retina display, came at a time when the iMac line needed an infusion of something new, something dramatic -- after all, it's difficult to get really excited about another speed bump. The last time Apple made a major change in the iMac was in late 2012, and that was when Apple shrank the iMac to 5mm at the edge, a change that was nice, but a thinner iMac wasn't on most people's wish list.

The Retina iMac is the change in the iMac lineup we've all been waiting for, but it's not quite the computer for everyone -- yet. This buyer's guide, and the video below, take a look at what needs to be considered when deciding to buy the Retina iMac.


What is the iMac with 5K Retina display?


The Retina iMac looks like your typical iMac from the outside. The key difference is the screen; you'll notice that it shows amazing detail, and images look crisper and cleaner on the Retina iMac than on a standard iMac.

Apple calls a display "Retina" when a user, at a typical usage distance, can't discern the individual pixels on the screen. The Retina iMac achieves this with a 5120-by-2880 pixel resolution. A standard 27-inch iMac has a resolution of 2560-by-1440. That's a lot more pixels (four times, to be exact) on the Retina iMac.

retina_imac
Screen resolutions compared with the Retina iMac

If you're still trying to wrap your head around the enormity of the Retina iMac's resolution, Apple provides a sample 5K image that you can look at on your Mac. The Retina iMac can show this complete image on its display.

In order for the iMac to handle so many pixels, Apple had to create a new timing controller. It's currently found only in the Retina iMac -- the Mac Pro doesn't even have the graphics capability to handle 5K resolution (yet).

Who is the 5K iMac for?


The Retina iMac is $2499, out of the price range for many consumers. For most users, a 5K display is a luxury, not a necessity to be productive.

Content producers will benefit the most from a 5K display. There's enough screen resolution for video editors working with 4K content to show video at actual size and still have room for app menus in the editing app. Photographers who work with large files will also benefit from the display, and designers will have the space to create and modify projects.

That being said, if you have the money, there's nothing stopping you from buying a Retina iMac. Who wouldn't want a display capable of such gorgeous graphics? And with so many pixels, you can fit more windows on the screen, so you many not need a second display.

It's undoubtedly only a matter of time before Apple outfits the whole iMac line with Retina displays. Apple will eventually figure out how to reduce the costs to make such machines. Waiting to see if a more affordable Retina iMac is released isn't a bad idea, especially if your current machine still meets your performance needs.

Specifications


The Retina iMac is not just the high-end iMac with a better display. The specs between the standard configuration $1999 iMac and the $2499 5K iMac are different in three major areas (besides the display).

At the heart of the Retina iMac is a 3.5GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 with Turbo Boost up to 3.9GHz. That's slightly faster than the 3.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 with Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz found in the $1999 iMac. For $250, you can customize the Retina iMac with a faster, 4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 with Turbo Boost up to 4.4GHz.

Another major difference is the graphics card. The standard $1999 iMac has a 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 775M, while the Retina iMac has a 2GB AMD Radeon R9 M290X (and don't forget the special timing controller). You can upgrade the graphics card in the Retina iMac to a 4GB AMD Radeon R9 M295X for $250.

The final major difference is the storage device. The older 27-inch $1999 iMac comes with 1TB hard drive standard, while the Retina iMac has a faster 1TB Fusion Drive. Apple offers Fusion Drive and flash storage upgrades for an additional fee.

All iMacs include 8GB of memory. The 27-inch iMacs, including the Retina model, allow the user to upgrade the memory. Apple supplies the 8GB as a pair of 4GB RAM modules, so you can add a couple of modules if you'd like later on after your purchase.

imac-2014-ports
All iMacs include the following:
  • Four USB 3 ports
  • Two Thunderbolt ports (Thunderbolt 2 for Retina iMac)
  • Ethernet port
  • SDXC card slot
  • Headphone jack

Mac Pro vs. 5K iMac


Apple's quad-core Mac Pro is $2,999 without a display. 5K displays aren't in wide distribution yet; the only ones you'll find are Apple's iMac and Dell's $2,500 UltraSharp 27 Ultra HD 5K Monitor, which you can't use with the current Mac Pro. More 5K displays are coming (and it's possible Apple will update the Mac Pro so it can drive a 5K display), but you can consider a 4K display, which range in price from $700 to $3,000. The Retina iMac doesn't support target display mode, so you can't get one, connect it to your Mac Pro, and use it as an external display.

A 5K display or a quality 4K display can cost as much or more than a standard configuration $2,499 Retina iMac, so it's tempting to get the Retina iMac instead of the low-end quad-core Mac Pro.

Outside of price, there are software instances where you're better off with a Retina iMac. If your daily usage involves productivity apps, Internet access, and even iLife apps, the Retina iMac is a better choice. It outperforms the quad-core Mac Pro (and even the six- and eight-core models) in single-core performance, according to GeekBench 3 benchmark results.

geekbench-retina-imac-single
A Mac Pro is the better choice if you use pro apps like Final Cut Pro, Logic Pro, and Photoshop. These apps are designed to use multiple processing cores, and the Mac Pro excels in multi-core performance, according to GeekBench 3. The higher-end Retina iMac with a 4.0GHz processor does outperform the 4-core Mac Pro, however.

geekbench-retina-imac-multi
Many pro apps still need to be optimized for the Retina iMac, so keep that in mind. Retina iMac owners have found that UI elements may have some performance issues. For example, in his review of the Retina iMac, Jason Snell found that Logic Pro X had issues when scrolling through a timeline, but this has since been fixed in an update.

Should you buy a 5K iMac?


The Retina iMac offers top-notch performance with the best display Apple has ever made. If you own an iMac that's more that four years old and you've been holding out for a game-changing upgrade, the Retina iMac fits the bill.

If you've bought an iMac within the past three years, you're probably happy with the performance of your current machine. The Retina display is more of a luxury, unless you often use pro app -- then you'll be able to take advantage of the high resolution.

The Retina iMac is really targeted at pro users who are working in different forms of media and use apps that take advantage of multiple processing cores. Editors of high-resolution video will benefit from the Retina display, and even if you're working in audio or lower-resolution video for the web, you may not need to rely on a second display as much as you do now -- the Retina display gives you plenty of space to do your work.

Related Roundups: iMac, Mac Pro


Top Rated Comments

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40 months ago
The content here has really been improving lately, in my opinion. Great article.
Rating: 7 Votes
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40 months ago
I was ready to buy one of these when they launched, sadly using my current (ancient) 27" in target display mode as my MacBook external monitor is part of my workflow, so for me the 5K was not meant to be.

Also, check them out in the apple store before you buy. I was expecting a night and day display difference, but unless I got very very close to the screen and looked very hard, I couldn't tell a difference. :(
Rating: 4 Votes
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40 months ago

I was ready to buy one of these when they launched, sadly using my current (ancient) 27" in target display mode as my MacBook external monitor is part of my workflow, so for me the 5K was not meant to be.

Also, check them out in the apple store before you buy. I was expecting a night and day display difference, but unless I got very very close to the screen and looked very hard, I couldn't tell a difference. :(


Likewise. I tried an A/B comparison side-by-side in the store. Only in apps optimized for Retina (such as the Finder) could I see any difference, and that was only with getting right on top of the display, much closer than I'd normally do for real work. In non-optimized apps you're seeing pixel-doubling. Seems to me the Retina iMac occupies the awkward prosumer category: more than most people need in an AIO Mac, and less than many would want for display-intensive work in optimized apps.
Rating: 3 Votes
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40 months ago
Admittedly, I fit into the category of "several-year-old 27" iMac, looking to upgrade" (though prior to that I'd always bought pro towers), so I'm a prime candidate. That said, man is that a heck of a computer.

Speed and impressive GPU performance for an all-in-one aside, the screen is just flat-out gorgeous. I imagine some people with worse eyes, or who sit way back from their desk, might not notice it as much, but it looks absolutely stunning to my eyes from where I usually sit.

Relatively high-res photos in particular look stunning, and text is markedly sharper and clearer.

Also: There isn't much need, but running a modern racing game at 5K for a bit to try it out looks unbelievable, and shockingly enough the GPU was actually keeping the framerate smooth (though the fans sure spooled up).
Rating: 3 Votes
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40 months ago
I just want the retina iMac's specs in a Mac mini.

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The 5K iMac is right for people with more dollars than sense.


It's the same price as a 5K display by itself. I'd call that very cheap for what it is.

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It's kinda sad how this beats a low-end Mac Pro in multicore performance, comes with a display, AND is cheaper. So what, the Mac Pro is only better in terms of GPU performance? It's got 2013 parts and is still sold at the same price as when it was new.
Rating: 3 Votes
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40 months ago
I understand that many users would be benefit from this, but I would love to see an iMac that would accept HDMI for Target Display Mode. I run a second monitor for my 360, but would love to free up a little more space in my room. Other than that I love my 22 inch 2012 iMac.
Rating: 2 Votes
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40 months ago

I understand that many users would be benefit from this, but I would love to see an iMac that would accept HDMI for Target Display Mode. I run a second monitor for my 360, but would love to free up a little more space in my room. Other than that I love my 22 inch 2012 iMac.


The first DisplayPort-equipped 27" iMacs had Target Display Mode that would work with a DP-HDMI adapter, so you COULD plug an HDMI device (such as an Xbox) in. But that went away with Thunderbolt. I wish it would come back. Hell, I'd accept the 5K iMac allowing 1080p HDMI input, not even going for the full 5K over Thunderbolt or anything. (Although obviously that would be better - even 4K over HDMI or DisplayPort would be a nice bonus.)
Rating: 2 Votes
Avatar
40 months ago

Also, check them out in the apple store before you buy. I was expecting a night and day display difference, but unless I got very very close to the screen and looked very hard, I couldn't tell a difference. :(


Likewise. I tried an A/B comparison side-by-side in the store. Only in apps optimized for Retina (such as the Finder) could I see any difference, and that was only with getting right on top of the display, much closer than I'd normally do for real work. In non-optimized apps you're seeing pixel-doubling. Seems to me the Retina iMac occupies the awkward prosumer category: more than most people need in an AIO Mac, and less than many would want for display-intensive work in optimized apps.


While you may have to work to see the difference from just a glance, I can tell you from my experience that your eyes can tell the difference whether you can detect it or not. I use my computer for hours on end. At work I have a 2011 iMac. Great machine, love it. At home I have an iMac with Retina. After a few hours of work I find myself repeatedly taking off my glasses, rubbing my eyes, and taking breaks because my eyes hurt. At home, I go for hours and my eyes feel great.

Now, everyone's eyes are different and there are likely other environmental factors that may be at play (lighting for one), but when I'm looking at a word doc on my work machine it is clearly pixelated text. On my home machine, it looks just like magazine print.

That may not justify dumping a perfectly functional machine, but I love my iMac with Retina like no machine I ever owned.
Rating: 2 Votes
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40 months ago



Also, check them out in the apple store before you buy. I was expecting a night and day display difference, but unless I got very very close to the screen and looked very hard, I couldn't tell a difference. :(


I agree that it's difficult to discern the difference between the Retina display and the old 27" display on graphics. On text, on the other hand, the improvement offered by the Retina display is very readily apparent. In fact, it's so obvious, that I now dislike reading anything on my secondary monitor which is a 27" 2560 x 1440 display.
So I actually believe that users with text-intensive work may benefit as much as the graphic users toward whom the iMac Retina seems to be pitched.
Rating: 1 Votes
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40 months ago
I had a 2013 27" iMac for 4 months before I decided to "splurge" and get the 5K. Small text on the 2013 was a little difficult to read, but it is crystal clear on the 5K.

Not that the 2013 has a bad screen mind you, but the 5K screen is just so sharp and clear compared to anything else out there.

I figure the 5K should hold me for quite a few years. It has more horsepower than I will ever need, and I upgraded it to 16GB of RAM so I can run a few VMs on it as well.
Rating: 1 Votes
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